Last week I wrote about Neil Walker being a good free agent target to improve the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays. I still believe that signing Walker would have been a positive addition to the Rays especially at a price that is more affordable than one would expect.
After Walker ended up signing with the New York Yankees, our managing editor Danny Russell wrote that the Rays failure to sign Neil Walker was embarrassing. I strongly disagree with this sentiment.
Would signing Walker make the 2018 Rays better? Yes.
Would Walker signing with the Rays be his best option? I don’t believe so.
Why the Yankees were the better choice for Neil Walker
When teams are shopping on the clearance rack in March, opportunity is the number one commodity. When you remove the money from the equation, the Yankees were a much better option for Walker than the Rays.
Both teams have battles for playing time at 2B/3B.
A MLB veteran isn’t usually going to worry about minor league talent, but both the Yankees and Rays have high profile prospects ready to make the step to the majors in 2018. The Yankees have Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres. The Rays have Willy Adames and Christian Arroyo. This is a wash.
The question comes down to the opening day battle for a starting role.
The Yankees had Brandon Drury, Danny Espinosa, and Ronald Torreyes. Drury is a solid infielder and would look to hold down one of the two starting jobs. Espinosa is a defense first middle infielder that has bounced around the league and was DFA’d last summer before the Rays picked him up. Since the signing Espinosa was released. Torreyes is a utility infielder that has his uses, but shouldn’t be your starting option.
The Rays have Matt Duffy and Brad Miller as more significant obstacles to earn either starting job. Walker has very similar skills to Miller. Miller is coming off a much worse 2017, but is the incumbent second baseman on the roster. Duffy missed the whole 2017 season, so there is legitimate health risk here, but if you are a veteran you aren’t looking for that if a better option is available. The Rays could have DFA’d Miller and signed Walker for a small cost and likely small gain.
Then there’s the added Tampa Bay complication that neither Miller or Walker would have seen the field in 2018, as the Rays have been preaching a return to defense-first rosters.
Reasonable people can fall on either side whether Walker or Miller will perform better in 2018 on offense or defense. For both, I’d bet on Walker right now because Miller isn’t as healthy as I would like right now, but the four year age difference is significant. Walker has been the better player over the recent past.
Without counting on secondary factors like contract value or the odds of winning the World Series in 2018, I think the pretty clear choice for me would be signing with the Yankees because there’s less resistance to playing time today. That might change in the near future and Walker will still have to perform to keep his job, but the leash will be a bit longer in New York.
Now compound that decision with the Yankees being one win away from the World Series last year, and the decision was easy.
Free agency might not have gone as planned for Walker this year, but choosing the best opportunity to earn another contract is the most important factor. That opportunity is simply better in New York, where his competition is weaker and his opportunity to stay on the infield is higher.
If the Rays were able to sign Walker for similar terms, then they should absolutely be opened for criticism. I just believe the simpler answer is they didn’t provide the best opportunity.